James Erskine’s path into documentary filmmaking has largely been sports-related – films like World Cup-inspired One Night in Turin, tennis rivalry tale Battle of the Sexes and Ian Botham’s 1981 triumphs on the cricket field, From the Ashes. His latest film Billie – about the iconic singer Billie Holiday – marks an interesting change of direction. Erskine, however, has always had an eye for a cast-iron subject, and Holiday is no different.
Certainly, Erskine pulls out all the stops to bring Holiday’s tumultuous story to life. For those who only casually know Holiday’s music, this will be an eye-opening deep-dive into the Philadelphia-born singer’s life, which was cut short in 1959, when she died, aged 44, of cirrhosis. Right from the off, you learn that she was pushed towards prostitution in her teens; her life didn’t get much easier going forward, with a heroin problem that led to a conviction and a spell in jail.
What makes Billie unique is that it is based around a written biography that never was. In 1979, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl died, after falling from a hotel balcony. It was deemed suicide, with Lipnack Kuehl leaving behind 125 cassettes of interviews she conducted with friends and associates of Holiday. Some family members interviewed felt her death was murder, possibly even related to the book she was working on; it’s a distracting side issue in the story that never really satisfies.
More interestingly, obviously, is Holiday’s own rollercoaster existence, from the time she was singing in clubs in Harlem and was spotted by impresario John Hammond. He introduced her to Count Basie, the big band leader with whom she’d begin touring, with Holiday soon nicknamed ‘Lady Day’. Other unique pit-stops are covered – not least recording ‘Strange Fruit’, a song based on a poem about a lynching that became something of a soulful trademark.
Erskine’s efforts to get under the skin of Holiday are admirable, with plenty of visual aid to help – including some choice live footage. The addition of Lipnack Kuehl’s never-heard audio recordings give the film real substance, with so much testimony on offer about the almost unknowable Holiday. The result is a credible portrait of one of the 20th Century’s most indelible artists.
Billie is available on demand from 13 November. For more details, click here.